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Why Obama And Modi's Talks Mean Little For Half-A-Billion Indian Women

23/01/2015 8:29 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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AMRITSAR, INDIA - JANUARY 21: An Indian kitemaker poses with kites adorned with images of US President Barack Obama (R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) on January 21, 2015 in Amritsar, India. Barack Obama arrives in India this weekend for an unprecedented second visit by a serving US president, the honoured guest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was still a Washington outcast a year ago. (Photo by Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will be the chief guest at India's Republic Day Celebrations on 26th January, 2015. His is a momentous presence, on a momentous day.

It's also a definite coup of sorts for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who not so long ago was unworthy of a US visa. Despite a landslide victory, Modi has yet to roll out his economic agenda and struggles with party affiliates propagating everything from religious conversions to encouraging Hindu women to produce a minimum of four children.

Obama's visit, however, will be a high point that will give two new friends another opportunity to forge collaborations aimed at boosting economic growth.

But this opportunity will all be for naught if Obama and Modi miss the chance to touch on an integral issue that impacts it all: the tragic state of security and rights of women and girls in India.

Yes, perhaps the cost of India's mission to Mars was less than the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster, but is that the point of development? It's difficult for me to imagine a trade highway when Indian roads are still not safe for women. But some believe that it's possible.

I think not!

Inequality is often never by chance but is rather a feature of capitalism, says Thomas Piketty, my favourite economist. In fact, his work on economic transitions in the US and Europe indicate that growth in the presence of inequality congregates wealth in the hands of a few; leading to both wealth and labour imbalances.

Thus, as India launches its new model of cooperative federalism, we seem weak in light of the fact that 50% of India i.e women don't realise basic rights and just 29 of every 100 participate in work, the lowest rate across BRIC nations.

Aren't these definite signs of instability?

Activists have been berated by the country's finance minister for creating excessive hype around women's issues. Most recently, a rape inside a UBER cab is said to have cost the economy several days of tourism and business. Just two years back, the entire city of Delhi was on the roads protesting against a barbaric gang rape, only to be quieted.

I'm often told to get off my feminist hat and focus on real stuff--business, economy and trade.

But can economic growth be sustained when vast swathes of India continue to report cases of molestation, sexual assault, rape, eve-teasing and more? When we rank among 20 worst countries on world on sex ratio and six in every ten Indian men deem domestic violence to be 'ok'.

This is an issue that neither Obama nor Modi can afford to ignore. Here's why:

India has more than half-a-billion women who can substantially contribute to the labour market, as entrepreneurs generating profits and build capital. However, so far prioritising them is seen merely as a social good and not integral to economic progress.

The signs of economic failure are, however, implicit in this act. Take our job projections for instance; it remains unclear how India expects to encash a demographic dividend and create 500 million jobs by 2022 when a smaller share of our women work outside homes than in any other country and education benefits just a few million girls.

Mind you, inadequate focus on women is not just an ''Indian thing'' or a south-south problem either. Today, every 107 seconds an American is sexually assaulted--a majority of them are women and nearly 35% of women worldwide still report experiencing violence.

It is here that President Obama can bring his presence to bear, not just because he is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, but because it is imperative to bilateral collaboration and trade.

Furthermore, we are also Sashas and Malias to someone and need a champion to steer the course. Many Indian women, including me, stayed awake listening to his victory speech and like so many Americans we were moved by his promise, to fulfil the dreams of daughters, and provide girls the same opportunities as boys.

In my work with women, I hear the same story. They are tired of political promises and yearn for a real piece of the economic pie, and for their safety!

As President Obama embarks on his India tour to be wooed with offers of '3Ds'--Democracy, Demography and Demand--and perhaps a touch of the mystical Taj, I fear that it may all end up as diplomatic hype. Both countries must concur that pacts around trade will not succeed without prioritising women's needs as they will be bereft of the realities faced by half-a-billion women.

In the end it is a perception issue. Obama and Modi can treat women's rights as an undeserving headache to business or see them as the next generation of productivity enhancers.

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